The Clean’s response to the more-common-than-you’d-think musical conundrum “What becomes a Kiwi-rock legend most?” was to split up. First in 1982, barely a year after the landmark drone and clatter of the Boodle Boodle Boodle EP (citing fame fatigue—six months on the New Zealand charts!), and several more times in the two decades since. Like all great punk bands (though strictly speaking, they were a garage-surf-folk band with pop ears and a punk heart), they peaked early, and by the time their dirt-cheap, diamond-hard paroxysms were lined up all in a row on 1986’s breathtaking Compilation, they’d snagged a berth in the rock canon without so much as releasing a proper record.
The Clean co-pioneered a scene whose significance and romantic appeal had much to do with geographical isolation. Soaking up various Velvety sonics with heedless voracity, the New Zealand sound percolated at a liberating remove from those very sources and happened upon its flushed, topsy-turvy energy as a result. The sheer distance traveled by these ornate yet ramshackle songs—wafting in all the way from Dunedin, a South Island town so remote it might as well be Antarctic—made them even more exotic. Of the Flying Nun Records squadron, it was the Clean who most vividly illustrated the utility of their native land as an evolutionary stepping-stone, a faraway guitar-rock foundry where musical tropes from the other side of the globe were summarily melted down and recast in new shapes and colors.
The story of grown-up, album-era Clean—from 1990’s charming scrapbook of afterthoughts, Vehicle, to the new, genially enigmatic Getaway—has been one of routine disbandings and unceremonious reunions. By now the Clean seem less like a band than a secret recipe—offering the implicit promise of consummate chemistry whenever guitarist David Kilgour, drummer Hamish Kilgour, and bassist Robert Scott play together. (They also write collectively, as a rule, and take turns on lead vocals.)
In a sense, Getaway is the sound of things coming full circle. Trace elements of the Clean could be found in many more-celebrated and more widely heard bands that followed, and the poignant irony of the new record is how neatly it can be described in terms of its likeness to Clean descendants (however distant): Sonic Youth’s ambiguous wonder and combustive swirl, Pavement’s slanted enchantment, Yo La Tengo’s beatific languor (Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley contribute cameos on cue)—all of which the Clean predated and to a degree presaged. A lovely, roomy, almost ambient record, Getaway is tuneful, but too wayward and drowsy and hard to pin down to be catchy, and even more befuddling when set beside the curt irascibility of the early stuff.
The mellowing of the Clean happened largely out of sight, on the two overlooked albums between Vehicle and Getaway: the bric-a-brac grab bags Modern Rock (1994) and Unknown Country (1995), on which folky roots start to push past punky underbrush. But the Clean have always been a part-time band, and since their family tree is as snarled as any in Kiwi rock (it seems compulsory for everyone to play in everyone else’s band at some point), the curious tics and seemingly incompatible fragments you hear on Getaway also bespeak (in roughly ascending order of relevance) Robert Scott’s role as leader of the ever whimsical Bats; Hamish’s stints with the New York-based noise outfit Bailter Space and his own lush jangle-pop band the Mad Scene; David’s ’90s solo recordings, which indulge his penchant for dreamy acoustic strum (A Feather in the Engine, which Merge will release in January, is his most elegant and varied solo outing yet); and the Kilgour brothers’ lamented ’80s side project, the Great Unwashed (not as different from the Clean as the name cheekily suggests, but certainly murkier and even more homespun).
Getaway‘s first track, “Stars,” establishes the general tone of daydream alienation: “Sun shining all of the time,” David croons, still reassuringly off-key. “Sometimes I’m all on my own.” Horizonless vistas of fair-weather melancholy thus conjured in two quick strokes, Kilgour fixates on a single word—”Time . . . time . . . time”—mulling it over to the point of numbness. (Does he mean to comprehend its inexorability or retard its progress?) The music also finds its meaning in repetition—the shambling chords grow in complexity and majesty with each embellished iteration.
The interplay on Getaway is as relaxed and intuitive as the textures are rich and strange—the spidery Kilgour guitar accentuated by bongos, autoharp, and mandolin. Most of the songs are still under three minutes, but the propensity for spiritualized jams is higher than usual. “Jala,” for instance, is all mesmerizing gurgle and reverb, with a reproachful inquiry rising sweetly from the miasma: “How did you forget love?” The beauty of the music sinks in subliminally. Songs seem to flow into or rewrite each other, entangling themselves in oblique games of call and response (one experimental wig-out is actually titled “Reprise 1#, 2*, 3*, & 4*”).
Which isn’t to say that Getaway skimps on actual pop songs. Hamish nails Reed/Malkmus mock heavy-heartedness on “Crazy.” “E Motel,” a bracing gust of British-invasion caprice resting on Robert Scott’s nasal warble, is blissed-out enough to be about MDMA (the typically unilluminating lyrics neither confirm nor deny this). “Poor Boy” is named like a Nick Drake tribute and not only sounds the part but maybe even offers a what-if-he’d-lived scenario. The closing “Complications” returns to ground zero—the spirit of ’81, fast, hooky, and shouty—but with unapologetically frayed edges and a washed-out palette. David Kilgour once said, “I’m a sucker for sweet little melody things. You hear them and forget about life for a few seconds.” Unassuming and luscious, Getaway is nothing less than an amnesiac balm.
The Clean play Bowery Ballroom September 15 and Maxwell’s September 16.